• Associated Press

DeSantis Hits Iowa Campaign Milestone But is Still Far Behind Trump, Who Again Mocked His Campaign

Lily Smith/The Des Moines Register via AP
Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the final event of a 99-county tour of Iowa, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Newton.

NEWTON, Iowa (AP) — Ron DeSantis completed his campaign promise to visit each of Iowa’s 99 counties, crossing a symbolic but also tactical threshold by telling his audience in a central Iowa town “this should show you that I consider myself a servant, not a ruler.”

Former President Donald Trump, who still remains far ahead of DeSantis, mocked him at a larger rally about 100 miles away and said the Florida governor’s campaign was falling “like a very seriously wounded bird.”

In that way, the Florida governor’s moment, much like the months of campaigning so far, took place under Trump’s towering shadow.

The presence of Trump on DeSantis’ day of accomplishment underscores the challenge he and other Trump rivals face in Iowa. DeSantis has said he expects to win the caucuses. He’s focused much of his campaign on the state and a super PAC supporting him has invested more than $16 million in advertising and more on building a campaign organization for the Jan. 15 caucuses.

But even with the endorsement of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, DeSantis has not cut into Trump’s huge lead and is facing new pressure from the campaign of former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.

His political operation lost another top official on Saturday. Kristin Davison resigned from the Never Back Down super PAC less than two weeks after taking over from the previous CEO following his departure, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal operations. Politico first reported Davison’s departure.

Never Back Down spokesperson Jess Szymanski said that Scott Wagner would serve as the new CEO and that the group still has “the most organized, advanced caucus operation of anyone in the 2024 primary field.”

DeSantis portrayed the timeworn feat for presidential candidates of visiting all of Iowa’s counties as an adventure for his family. On one visit, he went to the “Field of Dreams” baseball movie set and pitched to his children on a baseball diamond cut into a cornfield.

Stops at famous bakeries and ice cream parlors made for quaint stories about his family, including wife and three young children, trekking across Iowa since May. But the mission taught him more, he said.

“You meet people, rustle up some votes,” he said at an events center in Jasper County, just east of Des Moines in central Iowa. “But is it just all about politics?”

Trump has savaged DeSantis, mostly criticizing him as disloyal for running against Trump after seeking his endorsement when DeSantis first ran for governor.

“We hit him very hard and he’s been falling out of the air like a very seriously wounded bird,” Trump said during his Cedar Rapids event, twirling his right index finger to symbolize what he says was DeSantis’ fall.

DeSantis advisers argue that making stops in each county on Iowa’s sprawling checkerboard can squeeze critical support out of small rural counties while also demonstrating a commitment to courting all parts of the state.

But he is facing internal problems within his political operation — with two key officials leaving the major super PAC supporting him — and a challenge from Haley as the chief competitor to Trump. She has been rising in early-state polls and picked up the support of Americans for Prosperity, the political arm of the powerful Koch network.

Over the year, many Iowa Republicans have said that they continue to support Trump and what they see as his accomplishments, notably the nomination of three Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade and abolish a federally guaranteed right to abortion.

Some Republicans feel Trump has been weakened by the indictments he faces, even if they see the cases as politically motivated. But few in the GOP field have attacked Trump as a centerpiece of their campaigns, driven by a belief that those criticisms can backfire.

Nathaniel Gavronsky, a Republican from Wayne County, Iowa, attended Trump’s event in Cedar Rapids. Gavronsky said he had met every candidate in the January caucuses and was likely to support North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Gavronsky said DeSantis’ visit to all 99 counties helped his campaign, “but the problem is you can’t go there with rhetoric. You have to actually take harder questions.”

“Trump’s going to win,” he said. “If it gets to the point where Trump might not win my caucus, I’ll jump ship and make sure Trump gets in there.”